Portland Christian came from behind several times versus Salem Academy in the 2A title tilt
Portland Christian came from behind several times versus Salem Academy in the 2A title tilt

Portland Christian won the final two sets Saturday evening to dethrone two-time defending 2A champion Salem Academy in a five-set thriller at the 2023 OSAA /OnPoint Community Credit Union State Volleyball Championships conducted at Ridgeview High School in Redmond. Set scores for the match were 22-25, 26-24, 16-25, 25-22, 16-14.

Sophomore OH Emma Brewer had 31 kills for SA, but the Royals’ Finley Marine matched her with 30 kills of her own,and served the ace in overtime in Game 5 that clinched Portland Christian’s first title since 2018.

“It was the most amazing match I’ve seen my team play,” said Portland Christian’s second-year coach Denetia Chimuku. “When we got to the fifth, I thought, ‘Ok. we have a chance.’ I looked at the score go back and forth. The energy was electric.

“These young ladies have amazed me with their work ethic and their fight. All season I’ve told them, ‘Fight for every point like you’re behind every game,’ and they always stepped up to the challenge.”

“Going into the tournament ranked fourth and finishing second feels great.” said Salem Academy coach Melissa Holman, whose team trailed 13-8 in the final set before rallying, behind Brewer and Perri Showalter, to send the match to extra points. “Three championship appearances, two of those ending in our favor, is more than I could ever have imagined for my coaching career and time at SA.

Salem Academy’s quest for a threepeat got off to a fast start by winning the first set of the championship match. Strong serving from Sydnie Reed helped SA race to a 9-2 lead and it seemed like the Crusaders would have a stress-free path to a one-set lead.

Youthful Portland Christian had other ideas, however, and surged to a 15-13 lead on the strength of an 11-1 run that included kills from Marine, Alyssa Baird, Addison Johanson and Payton Becker and an ace from Olivia Clapp, who served five points.

Salem Academy rallied to re-gain the lead at 17-16 and took the lead for good a few points later, thanks to a kill from Isabella McGraw and Brewer ace. Three late PC errors put the set into Salem Academy’s column.

That Salem Academy could be two sets from winning a third straight state title was remarkable. The Crusaders graduated state kills leader Aly Herber and two others from last year’s team, which won a come-from-behind thriller versus Monroe. The Crusaders also lost standout sophomore S/RS Lexi Herber, a foundational piece, to transfer to Western Christian right before the season began. It's the same Western Christian that was seeded No. 1 in the 2A tournament; the Western Christian team that Salem Academy went 3-1 against, including a sweep in the state semifinals on Friday.

“I am so incredibly proud of my athletes and their resilience,” Holman said. “The obstacles they had to overcome just to get there would have shut down many other teams. Their mental fortitude and determination to fight, dig deep and never give up is not only fun to watch; it’s deeply inspiring.”

Salem Academy started quickly in Game 2, getting eight kills from Brewer and three from Maddie Robertson in building a 19-13 lead. Things looked dire for Portland Christian with the Royals trailing by six late in the set.

Portland Christian called a time out and the team gathered around Chimuku.

“I told them that it wasn’t over, that they needed to focus and push,” she said. “That they have worked all year to get to this point, and that everyone doubted them. I told them this was the time to lay it all on the floor, and make sure they had no regrets. They needed to use the talent God has gifted them with to the fullest. Win or lose, they needed to look back and say, ‘That’s the best game I ever played.” Then I said to lean on each other, and always have fun.”

The PC rally started with a kill from Alyssa Baird, who had 25 on the night; and continued until a Marine kill knotted the score at 22-apiece. Salem Academy scored two of the next three points and had a set point, at 24-23, before Marine, a 5-9 sophomore outside hitter, terminated three straight times, twice assisted by the freshman Becker, to pull out the overtime win, 26-24.

I think PC's youth and inexperience ended up working to our advantage,” Chimuku said. “This team didn't give up. We came from behind multiple times and took over momentum.”

Portland Christian had all the momentum going into the third set, but kills from Brewer and Karalee Fridley and an ace from Gracelyn Tucker staked the Crusaders to an early 4-1 lead they would never relinquish. The Salem Academy lead grew to as many as 13 at 20-7, thanks to an 8-0 run, with seven points scored on Tucker’s serve. Robertson’s kill on set point gave SA the 25-16 win and a 2-1 set advantage going to the fourth set.

The fourth set was tight throughout, with no team leading by more than two points until a kill from Paige Hruby-Kolias gave Portland Christian a three-point advantage at 20-17. SA didn’t get closer than two the rest of the way and when Marine put away Becker’s set for the game’s final point, the teams found themselves knotted at two sets each and facing a sprint to 15 points for the championship.

The final set proved to be a challenge for both teams.

“There were some tough calls and replays that really affected the momentum for both teams,” Holman said. “Emotions were HIGH.”

Salem Academy scored the first point of the final set on a service error, but ceded the lead back, 5-3 after a Baird kill and two SA hitting errors. McGraw’s kill tied the set at 5-5, before consecutive Baird kills restored PC’s two-point lead, 

“The match was point for point, blow for blow,” Holman said. “The momentum was continuously shifting. The bench and crowd were loud, exciting, positive and supportive. We felt loved and uplifted. It truly was a team effort and helped the girls to run incredible plays, move and cover every inch of the court and dive for everything.”

SA caught Portland Christian again at 8-8 on a Robertson kill assisted by Maya Cooke, but a Marine kill started a 5-0 PC run that put the Royals firmly in control at 13-8.

Holman hoped her team had a rally in it, just as the Crusaders had rallied from a late deficit last year versus Monroe.

They did!

SA used three Brewer kills to get within 13-12, but PC bowed its neck and got a kill from Becker to earn two championship points.

Brewer erased one with her 31st kill of the match.

On the next point, Marine thought she’d won the match for the Royals with a power tip to the endline. A lift was called, however, tying the score at 14-14.

Chimuku shared the match’s final, frenzied moments: “Fin looked at me and said, ‘I’m mad Coach.’ I said, ‘Use it!’ She got set a 9 on the back and came through with a kill for point 15. Fin went back for the serve and I thought, ‘Breathe.’ She jump served and finished with that ace. And it was just such a big moment.”

Marine finished with 30 kills, 18 digs and two aces for Portland Christian (21-1). Baird hit .400 with 25 kills and 19 digs. Becker had 60 assists and six kills. Clapp had 21 digs and Zewdi Lampi added 11.

“This has been nothing but a dream, taking this young team all the way to the end and pushing through a five-set win,” Chimuku said. “There were moments when it felt like we were looking at David and Goliath, because everyone said that Salem Academy had the experience that we did not.”

The victory was extra special for Chimuku, because she coached alongside her father, a former head coach at De La Salle North Catholic.

“I couldn’t have been the coach I was without the support of my Dad,” Chimulu added. “His wealth of knowledge and experience has really broadened my coaching technique and given these girls more than one perspective. I could not ask for a better mentor and assistant coach.

“I also would like to say that these girls have a special place in my heart, and they really left it all on the floor. I am in awe of their talent and grind. I have truly been blessed to find a team that is truly a family.”

Salem Academy finished 21-7 on the year. In addition to Brewer’s monster performance (31 kills, 22 digs, three aces), Robertson had 14 kills, Haley Krieger contributed 29 assists and nine digs, Cooke had 17 assists and nine digs, Reed had eight digs and five aces and McGraw added three kills and three stuff blocks.

“Losing always stings,” Holman said. “Losing a five-set match that is SO close stings differently. And I think any coach can understand that.

“Much respect to our opponents, who fought tooth and nail, executed smart and aggressive plays both offensively and defensively. They are a good team and I am happy for them.”